Harold E. Mitzelfelt and Sylvia June Straw Mitzelfelt
1908 - 1974 1907 - 1974
Harold and Sylvia Mitzlefelt played important roles in Seventh-day Adventist music education in the first half of the 20th century. Following his training as a physician and pursuit of medicine as a career in mid-century, Harold continued to be involved in music as a performer and conductor, and Sylvia continued to teach, sing, and perform on both piano and organ.
Harold Mitzelfelt was born in Farmington, Illinois, on August 8, 1908, the sixth of nine children of Richard Arthur and Barbara Abel Mitzelfelt, who were both German immigrants. Although music had been an important part of life for his mother's ancestors in Europe, Harold was the only child who would pursue a career in music.
He was precocious from his earliest years, with interests in many areas. He found mathematics and music particularly intriguing and pursued both as he graduated from high school and then enrolled at Southwestern Junior College in Texas, where he was active in all aspects of music, singing as well as playing orchestral string instruments. He was introduced to the cello during this time, the instrument that would become his primary performance area. He met Sylvia June Straw, an accomplished pianist, while at SJC. He graduated with a two-year diploma in 1928, attended Union College for two years, and they married in 1930.
Sylvia had been born in Lake Charles, Louisiana, on June 23, 1907, the oldest of five children of Walter Edmond and Laura Estella Murphy Straw. Her father graduated from Emmanuel Missionary College, now Andrews University, in 1910, three years after she was born and her childhood was spent in several different places as her father pursued a career in education, served as a pastor, and then as a missionary in Africa, where he was principal of Claremont Union College, forerunner of today’s Helderberg College, and then organizer and first president of what is known today as the Zambesi Union.
In the decade following their return from Africa in 1924, the family moved several times, living in Colorado and then Texas, where her father taught for three years at Southwestern Junior College. Sylvia, who had started lessons on piano at an early age, completed the pianoforte program under Clarence Dortch at SWJC in 1928.
Following graduation from Union College with a four-year degree, Harold taught for a year in an SDA school in Little Rock, Arkansas. At the end of that year, he received a scholarship for a year of music study in Chicago. He then taught music at a public school in Eureka, Missouri, for two years, and in 1936 became high school music director in the Salem, Illinois, public high school system. In his six years at Salem, he developed a band that won first place in state competitions for five years and second place nationally in two of those years. His students also won in regional and national competitions on their instruments.
He was troubled, however, by the inevitable Sabbath conflicts in a public-school band program and its need for groups to play during Friday evening football and basketball games. When an invitation came for him to serve as head of the music department at Auburn Academy in Washington State in 1942, he accepted.
The next three years were rewarding ones for Mitzelfelt and the academy. A vivacious and energetic person, he revitalized the music program, teaching voice, plus all the wind and string instruments and conducting the chorale, glee club, band, and orchestra. During this time he studied composition and cello and completed a master's degree in music at the University of Washington in 1945. By now an accomplished cellist, Mitzelfelt also played in the Seattle Symphony and the Tacoma Philharmonic Orchestra.
Walla Walla College noticed his success at Auburn and when an opening in the band and orchestra position developed in 1945, Mitzelfelt was invited to come to the college. He responded positively but with a condition that the college purchase certain instruments, a stipulation the college board accepted.
For both the band and orchestra, the 1945-47 school years were a serendipitous coincidence of inspired leadership by Mitzelfelt and the influx of World War II veterans. Membership for both orchestra and band increased, with the band reaching 75, a record, by the beginning of his second year. Because of his intense involvement in the music program, success with the ensembles, and his extensive knowledge in musicology, he quickly became a beloved and respected music teacher at WWC.
While a student at the University of Washington, Mitzelfelt had developed a close relationship with the George E. Shankel family. Shankel and his daughter, Virginia-Gene, were studying there, having just returned from Africa. Their shared interests in music led to friendship, and when both the father and daughter were also invited to teach at WWC in 1945, the bond between the families increased. Mitzelfelt and Virginia-Gene collaborated on several musical projects during that first year at WWC.
After one year, however, the Shankels left, he to serve as academic dean at Atlantic Union College, and she to teach music. Patricia Mitzelfelt Silver, who played in her father's groups during this time, would later recall:
When the Shankels went to AUC, they asked him to come the next year. He would regret that decision. AUC was not as large a school as Walla Walla, and he found it hard to work there. He was not as accepted there as he had been at Walla Walla, where he had been looked up to by the kids he taught.
Both disappointed and disillusioned by what he encountered at AUC, Mitzelfelt left after two years, returning to Auburn Academy. A change in leadership at AA as he arrived, however, left him disenchanted with the situation there. At the end of that year he moved to Madison College in Tennessee, a self-supporting school, where Sylvia’s father, Walter, was serving as president.
During the next three years Mitzelfelt led the music department and taught other subjects at the college. He also took classes in science at nearby George Peabody College and in 1953, at the age of 46, left to study medicine at the University of Tennessee, in Memphis. He completed their program three years later and then joined a medical office in Hendersonville, a suburb of Nashville. A year later, he moved to Ellijay, Georgia, to be a member of the medical staff at a hospital that had just been taken over by the church. He would spend the rest of his life there, a highly respected physician.
Even with the career change, Mitzelfelt still enjoyed making music, playing his cello in chamber ensembles and community orchestras when possible. He also directed a church choir at the Ellijay SDA church. Sylvia, who had completed a music degree at MC late in life, continued to sing, accompany, and teach keyboard lessons. All four of their children would be active musicians, Patricia becoming a notable band director in SDA schools on both the academy and college level, and Vincent, a physician, establishing the Mitzelfelt Chorale, later known as the Camerata of Los Angeles, in Southern California.
Harold died on April 24, 1974, following a heart attack, at age 65. Sylvia died on December 21, 1979, in Berrien Springs, Michigan, at age 72. They are both buried in the SDA Church Cemetery in Tails Creek, Georgia.
Sources: 1920 U.S. Federal Census, Ancestry.com; Patricia Mitzelfelt Silver, interview by and conversations with Dan Shultz, 2004, a primary source for this biography; Southwestern Junior College Alumni List, Southwestern Union Record, May 26, 1948, 8; "Texico Colporteur Notes," Southwestern Union Record, November 6, 1928, 5; Southwestern Union Record, September 10, 1930, 2; Walter E. Straw obituary, Review and Herald, May 31, 1962, 22; Don R. Rees, "Death of Walter E. Straw," Southern Tidings, April 25, 1962, 20; Walter E. Straw obituary, Review and Herald, May 31, 1962, 22; "“Graduation Recital," Southwestern Union Record, May 15, 1928, 8; "Outstanding Band Leader and Cello Soloist Connects with Auburn Academy," North Pacific Union Gleaner, August 4, 1942, 6; The Journal of True Education, October 1942, 27; "New Music Instructor Expresses Enthusiasm; Reveals Plans for a Large Band, Orchestra in Interview," WWC The Collegian, September 28, 1945; "Oratorio Choir, Orchestra, Premiere 'Song of the Redeemed,'" WWC The Collegian, May 2, 1946; Billie Jean Fate, "Musically Speaking," WWC The Collegian, May 9, 1946; Patricia Mitzelfelt Silver Interview by Dan Shultz, January 23, 1990; The Journal of True Education, February 1951, 24; Dr. Harold E. Mitzelfelt obituary, Southern Tidings, August 1974, 1.